Children need words put on their emotions


TIME OUT:IN OUR ATTEMPTS to understand children, we ask them questions. But many questions are difficult for children to answer, especially questions about feelings, because children do not always have the words to describe what they think and feel, even when they want to.

Children initially need words to be put on emotions for them. They may know primary feelings like happy or sad. But as they often express sadness in anger, happiness in hyperactivity, and anger in temper, then translating their behaviour back to its possible underlying emotion can be helpful. It helps children to name what they feel and express it appropriately.

It is difficult to communicate feelings with no basic emotional vocabulary. And within emotions there are such fine gradations and distinctions that having words to reflect those nuances is a challenge for us all.

Even when we have finally acquired words to say how we feel, we discover emotions that are the most profound and deep cannot be expressed in words, so that we are once more rendered speechless before what is most important to us – which is why some things can only be said by silence. The emotional world is complex.

Clinical psychologists quickly become aware of the importance of words and how strenuously people search for words to communicate what they are feeling. There are significant emotional differences between synonyms, or words that ostensibly mean the “same” thing, regardless of how meticulously nuanced they are. Sad is not always the same as crestfallen, melancholy or miserable. It may be any or all of these things, depending on what triggered it.

There is a difference between “regret” and “remorse” that goes beyond language to the heart of the lived, felt experience and the reason someone feels that way. If finding the right word means giving the right message, then children need help to learn words that convey how they feel.

Children also have to learn the differences within the same category of emotions. For example, in a primary emotion such as anger there are many gradations. There is a world of difference between being displeased, miffed, frustrated to incensed, furious and fuming. There are also ways of dealing with the extremes and children need models of how to do this.

The more we help children and adolescents to distinguish between their experiences and then teach them how to express these experiences in useful ways, the more they will gain emotional insight and control.

Many parents are naturally good at helping their children to identify and define their emotions. For example, they often say things like “I know you are fed-up because”. These parents know that by showing how to put words on feelings and by acknowledging that their children have valid, understandable feelings that may be articulated appropriately, their children are both soothed and taught to deal with the emotional world in a realistic, assertive, non-aggressive, practical way.

Parents also know that how they speak about their parental emotions to children is helpful. They know that it is important that they discuss their emotions in calm, age-appropriate, natural ways, and that the more this happens, the more their children will acquire an emotional vocabulary and also learn to deal with the emotions that accompany it. When parents are honest and express their own emotions, when they say, for example, “Yes, I was worried when I could not see you there . . . I am annoyed that . . . I am really pleased that . . . ” they teach their children what to say when they have similar feelings.

Mixed messages make for confused children. Denial of emotion is a dangerous practice because it denies reality and suppresses feelings that must find expression elsewhere. Helping children to understand how they feel and to be empathic and to understand how other people feel, and then showing them how to express these feelings, is a crucial skill and a great gift to bestow on one’s children.

Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist. Her most recent book, When Times Are Tough, was launched last week in UCD and is published by Veritas